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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“We must spend money on culture”

Artist Oleksandr Roitburd on moods in Odesa, Russians’ mass consciousness, and Ukrainian quality product
12 March, 2015 - 11:07

You spend a lot of time in Odesa. How does the populace feel about what’s happening?

“Moods differ. Some are brainwashed by Russian propaganda, but most take a resolute stand for Ukraine. Well, different people tend to have different views that range in this case from adequate, even if not pro-Ukrainian, to senseless anti-Ukrainian ones.

“The main thing is not to do anything stupid in Odesa. For example, someone has determined that Odesa is 600 years old, that the place was previously known as Kotsiubeyivka. The place name has become a joke in Odesa. That doesn’t mean that there was no Kotsiubeyivka. There probably was, somewhere else. People staged a rally of protest against the parking lot at Langeron. It got so they started wrenching out cobblestones, only to unearth ancient amphorae. Further proof that people had lived here for God knows how many centuries. In fact, Odesa’s existence was ‘prehistoric’ until 1794. Its new format was ordered by Catherine II of Russia, regardless of how one feels about the old lady. It marked the beginning of the city’s history the way we know it. And one couldn’t have found any worse time for raising the issue of Odesa being actually Kotsiubeyivka.”

Who do you think is behind all this?

“Who are our ideologues? The Kotsiubeyivka anniversary has been assigned for this year by the Verkhovna Rada. The man in the street in Odesa can only regard this as an encroachment on the good old Odesa myth, saying oh well, now they’ll tear down the monument to Catherine the Great. Someone wrote to me on the Facebook that this will be done by the Right Sector. I called a friend of mine who heads the RS city organization and he told me they had nothing to do with that provocation, that they would protect rather than destroy such monuments.”

From what I know, you have always been against the demolition of the monument to Catherine II.

“That’s right, because this is a monument to an Odesa myth, a tale from the Golden Age. Anyway, that’s how people feel about it. The less you dwell on Catherine’s mistreatment of Ukrainians, the less the emphasis on the monument in conjunction with that historical figure. All those myths about chevaliers de Ribas, Langeron, Duke de Richelieu prancing around with a bunch of other Frenchmen and Italians sporting wigs, leggings, uniforms, epaulettes, boots with spurs, all those aristocrats that formed the city’s European environment, with Catherine’s ukase regarded distantly as an embodiment of educated absolutism. She was courteous, had many favorites and corresponded with Voltaire – a fairy tale, like I said. Naturally, no one is going to portray Catherine as virtue incarnate.

“There have been attempts to use the monument as a symbol of the Russian monarchic idea, but when dirty operetta Cossacks and grim babushkas with icons and imperial Russian flags gathered at a monument depicting a lady clad in 18th-century crinoline surrounded with wigged aristocrats and started singing reactionary anti-Semitic songs, the whole thing looked like an absurd show. The whole thing was sheer idiocy because the Russian fundamentalist monarchic idea has never been truly accepted by the people of Odesa, just as the monument to the city’s ‘founding fathers’ has never been regarded in that context.”

How would you go about persuading the 82 percent Russians who are supporting Putin and his aggression against Ukraine that they are wrong?

“I wouldn’t waste my breath trying to persuade that 82 percent differently. This reminds me of Danton and Robespierre riding in a coach in Paris, with people cheering. Robespierre said ‘look at all those people greeting us’ and Danton replied that they would be even happier to watch the two of them in a cart on their way to the guillotine.

“I mean the ratings of a tyrant are always conditional. Ceausescu had very good ratings a week before he was shot like a rabid dog. Russian poet Dmitri Prigov wrote: ‘He who really wants will see /The Russian people for what it really is, /Except that he will see it / The way he wants, /Like Lenin did, / He saw so many commies; / Like Solzhenitsyn did, /He saw so many blessed by God. / Well, that’s the way it really is, / Depending on who takes the reins.’ In other words, the 82 percent think the way those ‘upstairs’ want them to think. The idea of the sacredness of power and the truthfulness of the message they receive from those in power – whatever that message might be about – is a normal state of public consciousness in Russia. There is no use trying to talk sense to them. The very format of Russia must change, then the people will eventually believe that it was the right thing to do.”

Russia’s format has changed several times, yet Stalin’s cult of personality is still there.

“Stalin’s cult exists pro rata its promulgation. During the perestroika campaign Gorbachev caused an avalanche of exposes and that cult dropped by twenty something percent. Today it is upheld by 85 percent because its restoration is on an upward curve.

“We have those same Russian masses that made pogroms with church bells tolling under Nicholas I, people who would ten years later start burning down churches and chopping up icons. In the 1980s, all started going to church and learned to make the sign of the cross. The Russian people is oscillating in sync with the party’s general line.”

So, what can be said about such a people?

“An individual born in Russia can become a different one in a different society. I mean there is nothing genetic there. There are many Russians fighting for Ukraine, just as there are many ethnic Ukrainians on the Russian side. Trying to find a genetic common denominator would be absurd.

“If a person is born and raised in a slaveholding society, and if this society remains essentially the same despite all outward changes, that person will take that society for granted.”

Your father lives in Brighton Beach. You said he had constant debates with Russian immigrants during the Maidan in Kyiv, about what made people take to the streets. What are the moods in Brighton Beach these days?

“I must say that mass consciousness has changed in favor of Ukraine of late. The Russian flags have vanished and been replaced by Ukrainian ones, and there are cars bearing the Ukrainian colors. You see, Russia’s getting from its knees is accompanied by savage anti-American moods. People in Brighton Beach have grown accustomed to identifying themselves with America, a country that has provided them with decent living and secure old age. They cannot accept Putin’s description of America as hell on earth, as absolute evil, and so that ‘Little Russia’ is gradually turning into ‘Little Ukraine.’”

The Verkhovna Rada has banned the screening of certain Russian movies in Ukraine. Do you think this will help combat Russian propaganda?

“I regard this as a temporary wartime measure, although it is another idiotic decision, one of many. After all, Russia’s is not an absolutely totalitarian regime. We can hear voices of reason there and now and then their filmmakers come up with really good productions that have nothing to do with Putin’s propaganda. Some of their films are openly critical [of the regime].

“This law should have a clause reading ‘except for films recommended by a board of experts,’ not the Commission on Morals that was disbanded, God be praised. There is, for example, the Russian TV serial entitled The School directed by Valeria Gai Germanika. Now this serial should have prime screening time. It is a stark critique of Russia as seen by high school students. The plot is cruel, an eye-opener and no happy ending. Such productions should be screened instead of the serials about Russian cadets or that dumb schmaltz ‘Matchmakers.’”

Should their propaganda be combated in the first place?

“Its most brazen manifestations should. We should replace it with a Ukrainian quality product – not necessarily a serial that glorifies the ATO patriots. There were comedies made during World War II. We also need soap operas, thrillers, fantasies. We need productions to help cultivate respect for our culture.

“We must popularize Ukrainian culture and its figures, men of the arts. We know practically nothing about it. Ukraine doesn’t know its men of letters. If you ask people about the 20th-century Ukrainian poets, you will hear the names of Lesia Ukrainka, Ivan Franko, Maksym Rylsky, Pavlo Tychyna, Volodymyr Sosiura, at best.

“Nothing has been done to promote Ukrainian modernism and avant-garde. None of these artists has been admitted to the conventional pantheon. They are known and remembered by a handful of intellectuals.

“The Ukrainian National Museum is holding an exposition of works of art from the ‘special fund.’ Such works started being exhibited in the mid-1980s in Russia, but are displayed in Ukraine only now. In other words, we’re 30 years late. Probably because no one has shown an interest all these three decades, or maybe for want of funds.”

They will tell you that there’s no money for a Ukrainian quality product.

“There is a simple solution to the problem. Discard budget funding and set up tax-free funds. Then you can use various models, like mandatory lottery proceeds deductions. To quote from Zhvanetsky [popular Odesa-born stand-up comedian], this money would surmount the culture ministry’s budget the way a bull does a sheep. Or one percent of the tobacco excise tax, the way they do in Estonia. Raise tobacco and vodka prices by one percent and use the money for cultural needs, because our culture is starving to death.

“Back in 1987 I visited Kyiv and saw the construction of a new building of the Karpenko-Kary Institute. It was meant to accommodate the new Ukrainian school of the theater and cinema. Then they started saving budget funds and the project was never completed. Had it been completed, its graduates might’ve helped shape a new mentality in the Donbas and there might’ve been no war today. Somehow we economize on the wrong projects.

“If we had good movies based on Ukrainian literary works and life stories of Ukrainian writers, artists, musicians, our mentality would be more on the Ukrainian side. As it is, we appear to be following Stalin’s formula: ‘national in form and socialist in content’ that translates as official propaganda plus some folk frills.

“There are vyshyvanka hand-embroidered shirts and blouses in Poland, too, yet we do not associate Polish culture with them, but with modern literature and art in the first place. We must spend money on culture.”

Interviewed by Oksana KLYMONCHUK